Further Reflections on Recent Conversations about Christian Freedom

Article
07.27.2020

One of the advantages of social media is that an author receives pretty quick feedback on an article, allowing him to see what people are hearing or not hearing from his piece. For that reason, I’m grateful for the robust social media response—positive and negative—to my written reflection and the Pastors Talk with Mark Dever on Saturday. Both commented on Friday’s Grace Community Church elder statement, which called churches to join them in obedience to Christ by resisting the government’s restrictions on various gatherings, including churches. Some folks were very critical of our stance, and we welcome the pushback.

One question that has surfaced again and again on Twitter is this: Why would 9Marks feel compelled to respond to these elders and raise these points right now? Aren’t you the pro-church and pro-gathering guys?

It’s a good question, yet it takes me right back to the point of the article, which most critiques seem to have missed (I’m happy to take responsibility for that). We’re not looking for a debate on civil disobedience or what the Supreme Court said in Nevada or how bad the pandemic is or isn’t. As I said in my first piece, the stance of the elders is genuinely courageous, and I can even imagine my church making a similar decision as Grace at some point. I sincerely love the elders of Grace Church and their senior pastor. Rather, my article and our podcast tried to do one simple thing: remind fellow believers—as we all venture forward on our politically tumultuous landscape—of the crucial role of Christian freedom when we take these kinds of stances. On this and so many other issues, believers will come to different conclusions about the best path to take. And for the sake of maintaining unity, the unique authority of Scripture, and the gospel, we need to keep training our instincts to have a quick grasp for what belongs in the realm of freedom and what does not.

It’s possible I misunderstood the GCC elders’ statement. I’m happy to be corrected. But to my eyes, it essentially read, “This is the way of faithfulness, and we’re calling upon other churches to join us in obedience to Christ.” Then it asked churches everywhere to demonstrate such obedience to Christ by affirming the statement with a signature. I believe this message was communicated in the title and the opening lines about Christ, not Caesar, being Lord (could it be that other Christians are trying to obey Christ by obeying Caesar?). And it was communicated again and again throughout the statement. For example:

  • “Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”
  • “Pastors who cede their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have abdicated their responsibility before their Lord and violated the God-ordained spheres of authority.”
  • “Our prayer is that every faithful congregation will stand with us in obedience to our Lord.”

Aside from what the authors of this statement may or may not believe, the statement itself makes no provision for the possibility that a Christian might choose another path and still be counted as faithful. It does not say, “Churches and elders will come to different conclusions, but we believe we are free to disobey the government and even feel compelled to do so.” And the point of my article, stated at the beginning and end, with four points in the middle trying to carve out the possibility, was to say, “This is not the only way of potential faithfulness.” So with the follow-up podcast

Our response, in short, was to say that there is a difference between “We’re free to do this!” and “You have to do this, too!” The first insists on a political freedom, which is their right to insist upon. The second takes away a spiritual or Christian freedom, which is not their right. 

So, again, why raise these points now, good saints have asked? We’re not, finally, so much interested in addressing the decision of Grace Church once more. Rather, we want to draw attention to the growing pattern by Christians across the political landscape, ironically, to close down Christian freedom by binding the consciences of others in pursuit of our political agendas, agendas which are often good! This is a drum we’ve beat before and will continue to beat.

To the best of our ability, 9Marks has stood for and will continue to stand for Christian freedom, particularly in matters of political judgment. Not every political matter belongs to the domain of freedom. Abortion does not. Racism does not. Worshipping God and gathering as churches does not (and, yes, that’s political!). But how we approach those issues, and what strategies we take, as well as the vast number of other issues that fall under the headings of pastoral and political judgments, do fall into the domain of Christian freedom. 

Two Christians or churches can agree on the call to submit to government in Romans 13 and make different judgments about when and how to apply it.  

They can agree on Peter and John’s call in Acts 4 to civil disobedience when leaders overstep and make different judgments about how and when to apply it.

They can agree on the command to not forsake assembling ourselves together in Hebrews 10 and, again, make different judgments about whether or not “providential hindrances” such as having the flu, living in a nursing home, or being prevented by war or pandemics allow for occasional exceptions.  

Therefore, you should expect to continue hearing from us that Christians are free to disagree on whether masks are necessary, on attending protests (even if our governments are horribly and unjustly inconsistent in what they allow and what they forbid), on gathering as churches in defiance of government orders, on singing banned music at those gatherings, and the hundred other things that are bound to come up in the impending political season.

Amidst our political pursuits, we believe it’s crucial to remind the saints of our spiritual freedom for at least four reasons: 

First, for the sake of unity.

Christians in this country are going to tear each other apart if we treat every political judgment as a test of faithfulness. The nation’s politics are becoming uglier. The culture is pushing against churches. And now an election is here. All three of these factors combine to create a landscape in which a thousand different things—none of which are explicitly scriptural but many of which call for the application of Scripture—could divide us. When culture pushes against you, Mark Dever has said, unfaithfulness is one threat, but a biting and rancorous balkanization is another. And we feel brothers and sisters on both our political right and left increasingly treat their own issues as tests of gospel faithfulness. This does not bode well for unity in and between churches.

Lest you think it ironic to call for unity while offering a critique, please understand, the call to unity doesn’t mean we never disagree with one another, even publicly. That can encourage a false and shallow unity. Yet the call to unity does mean that, when we disagree, we try to do so charitably, for one another’s good, giving one another the benefit of the doubt, and affirming our ongoing gospel partnership, assuming this is possible. In other words, there’s mature disagreement and immature disagreement. I will leave others to judge whether or not I have modeled maturity. Along these lines, let me say, I trust I have more to learn from Grace Community’s beloved elders than they have to learn from me.

Second, for the sake of affirming the unique authority of the Bible.

God intends for pastors and churches to take a strong stand on what’s explicit in Scripture and what’s clear by “good and necessary consequence” from Scripture, to borrow a phrase from the Westminster Confession. A few of our political judgments reach this level. Most do not. Elsewhere, therefore, we have distinguished between “whole church” issues (which depend on “straight-line” judgments from the Bible) and “Christian freedom” issues (which depend on “jagged-line” judgments from the Bible). There’s a pretty straight line from the Bible to abortion, but not so straight a line on health care. There’s a pretty straight line from the Bible to a Christian’s duty to disobey government when the government calls us to sin, but not so straight a line on when or how we should disobey the government. Christians will disagree on which issues are whole-church issues and which are Christian-freedom issues. Fine. Yet we protect that unique authority of Scripture by insisting on the distinction.

Neither John MacArthur nor Mark Dever nor their respective elders’ judgments on when and how to apply the Bible rise to the level of Bible, as I trust all these men would quickly affirm. We protect the unique authority of Scripture by reminding our hearers of that distinction when we publicize our political judgments. None of us are apostles.

Third, for the sake of protecting the gospel.

No, we’re not saying the gospel comes under threat because of the Grace Community Church elder statement or decision to meet. We’re saying that a consistent and unchecked disregard for the Christian freedom of other saints and churches will create a culture of legalism. And legalism effectively undermines the gospel, even if it’s unintentional. This is a danger the church faces along every point of the political spectrum. When things that are not ultimate become ultimate, faith in the sufficiency of the gospel is replaced with fidelity to something else. Therefore, to fight for Christian freedom is to fight for the gospel, because doing so is one way we draw a line between the gospel and everything else. 

One of the marks of a healthy church, 9Marks has argued for two decades, is a biblical understanding of the gospel. Yet the growing political rancor of the last few years in and between our churches has prompted 9Marks during those same years to fight for the gospel more and more by emphasizing Christian freedom. And we will continue to do so. 

It’s good for the saints to care about politics. But realize that one temptation common to political conversation is the forsaking of Christian freedom. I start to prize what I feel certain about politically more than I prize your freedom in Christ. Hence . . . 

Fourth, for the sake of teaching American Christians how to think and speak in the language of Christian freedom and Romans 14 amid our present political turmoil.

For instance, I decided to attend a protest march organized for evangelical churches over a month ago in order to affirm the basic theological truth that black people are made in God’s image (since the DC mayor herself was speaking at marches, I didn’t understand myself to be disobeying her quarantine mandates, however inconsistent her application of those mandates might be). I also invited members of my church, but wanted to do so without wrongly binding consciences and presuming too much about my own judgments. Here is what I said in the email to my church: 

While I assume that all of you agree with me regarding the sinfulness of racism and of police brutality generally, I recognize that all of you might not share my diagnosis of this particular historical moment and what steps are necessary for addressing such problems. And I want to affirm your Christian freedom and my fellowship with you amidst such differences. I love you all. 

But let me know if you are interested in driving down with me. 

Perhaps there was a better way for me to have done this, but I am confident Christian freedom is a category and a language that Christians in the United States need to grow in using.

As for what you can expect from 9Marks moving forward, if you want to make a case for reparations a test of faithfulness (for or against), expect us to again say, “Don’t forget Christian freedom! Welcome to the Table those who disagree with you.” 

If you want to make the language of systemic racism a test of faithfulness (whether for or against), you’ll hear us say, “Don’t forget Christian freedom.” 

So with immigration policy and the timing and location of civil disobedience and specific strategies for combatting abortion and a hundred other things. And you’ll probably hear such talk from us more and more moving toward November. 

Say, “We’re free to do this” all you want. But take great care before you say, “And you have to do this too.” Don’t sacrifice our spiritual freedom for your political freedom. 

Lest you think I am merely pushing back on brothers and sisters on the political right, I mean to push back on the left, right, and center. We all need the lesson of Romans 14 (see the excellent work of Andy Naselli, along these lines.)  

To be sure, there are risks of walking down the road we’re walking, and you, friends, have a job to do in calling us to account. The risk of championing a Romans 14 freedom is an undiscerning compromise. It’s letting gospel-compromisers into the castle, calling them “friends” when they aren’t actually friends. And it risks failing to take a prophetic stand for truth or justice when we should.  

Insofar as 9Marks is flying the Christian freedom flag, these are our risks. (Lord, keep us from them.) I don’t presume we’ll always get it right. Keep calling us out. It’s possible that we will call something a matter of freedom that is not, even as we warn others not to make something a test of faithfulness that is actually a matter of freedom.  

— With love to all the churches, Jonathan for 9Marks

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.